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The Verdict: van Riemsdyk’s surreal journey to the NHL a testament to his patience, passion

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Photo by Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks

TORONTO—When Tony Esposito made his first National Hockey League start in 1968 with the Montreal Canadiens, he drew a tough assignment: brother Phil and the mighty Bruins at Boston Garden.

“It wound up 2-2, which could have been a decent result for all of us,” recalled Tony O, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame ambassador. “Except that Phil scored both goals against me. Our mother, Frances, wouldn’t talk to him for two weeks.”

There was no such familial angst here at the Air Canada Centre Saturday night when the van Riemsdyk clan convened. James did pot his 100th career goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 3-2 victory, but Trevor logged yet another strong effort on defense (19 minutes, 21 seconds) for the Blackhawks during a Dutch treat.

“How about that! Great, tight game between two historic franchises,” gushed father Frans, who wore an Original Six hat while wife Allison donned Chicago headgear above a Maple Leafs pullover.

“First time Trevor and I have met since our basement,” noted James, a 25-year-old winger, alluding to their childhood battles within pockmarked walls back at the house in New Jersey. “Once it got going tonight, we realized we both had a job to do. But when we look back, we’ll remember this for the rest of our lives. Very cool.”

Trevor was in Columbus on that June day in 2007 when James was selected second overall in the NHL Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers—just after the Blackhawks picked Patrick Kane. Trevor knew he would never be so heralded, because, as he says, “James was more national and I was more local, playing around home.” But at age 23, Trevor has ascended from hockey’s nethermost rinks to a regular perch on the blue line for a Stanley Cup contender.

“Pretty surreal,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought a year ago that this could happen.”

Upon completing high school at Christian Brothers Academy, Trevor “didn’t get a sniff” from any high-profile colleges. He pondered Division III hockey or pursuing a finance degree wherever. Then, with modest expectations, he attended the 2009 Chicago Showcase at The Edge in Bensenville.

“It was his last hurrah, in a way,” said Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks’ Vice President/General Manager. “That whole setup was for guys like Trevor, players who had some talent but hadn’t attracted a lot of interest.”

Trevor wasn’t invisible for long. He so excelled that Sean Tremblay, coach of the New Hampshire Monarchs of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, pulled him aside.

“He had great ability, calmness, steady hands,” said Tremblay. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you come and play for me?’ He did, and by his second year with us, people were knocking down the doors. I was like refereeing the recruiting process. Eventually, he went to the University of New Hampshire, where James went, and just kept getting better and better. A late bloomer, a terrific kid from a great family.”

The public might view front office types like Bowman as having cushy jobs, watching games from a United Center suite, nibbling on finger sandwiches. But it’s copious amounts of grunt work. After the Beanpot Tournament last winter, Bowman schlepped through foul weather to visit Trevor, who was on crutches after breaking his left ankle in January.

“I just wanted to meet him, have lunch,” Bowman said. “We had tracked Trevor for a while. Our scouts liked him. As a 20-year-old freshman in college, he had been an undrafted, unrestricted free agent. Now, he was a junior at New Hampshire. We thought he had a chance. But if I told you [then that] he would make our team this year, I’d be lying.”

There were many nights, late nights, back in New Jersey when we were in bed and we heard loud noises. We thought maybe someone was breaking into our house to rob us. It was Trevor working out, lifting weights downstairs.Allison van Riemsdyk

In March, the Blackhawks signed him to a contract. In July, at their Prospect Camp, he opened eyes. By training camp in September, against all odds, he was ready. The Blackhawks are deep on defense, in Chicago and beyond. But TVR hung tough and leapfrogged more familiar names who, one by one, were sent to Rockford.

“I took it day by day,” Trevor said. “I tried to make an impression, but I certainly didn’t have any ‘wow’ moments. I was just trying to make the best of my opportunity, make good reads. That showcase tournament outside Chicago was kind of a springboard. I always wanted to make it in the NHL. I just didn’t know if I would, if I could. Eventually, I had chances to sign with a few other teams. Why the Blackhawks? They have a tremendous reputation as a first-rate organization that develops players.”

Bowman’s initial reports on Trevor were somewhat cautionary. Outstanding skills, but does this kid really want it badly enough? His parents understood.

“He’s pretty quiet and reserved,” Allison said. “But don’t mistake that for lack of passion and intensity. There were many nights, late nights, back in New Jersey when we were in bed and we heard loud noises. We thought maybe someone was breaking into our house to rob us. It was Trevor working out, lifting weights downstairs.”

Bowman rather likes the fact that Trevor isn’t entirely manic about his profession.

“He’s got a life outside hockey, which is fine,” Bowman said. “He’s still driven. Very cerebral, and you can see that on the ice. Coaches say he’s like a sponge. Tell him something once, and you don’t have to tell him twice. Plus, we haven’t really seen all of what he has to offer. He is really gifted offensively, which will come in time.”

Trevor has assimilated into the Blackhawks’ scheme with ease. He rooms with Brandon Saad on the road; and, as a right shot customarily performing on his off side (usually with Michal Rozsival), Trevor soaks up data from Niklas Hjalmarsson, who fires left but partners on the right with Johnny Oduya.

“Not really surprised,” said James of his brother’s story. James couldn’t join family and friends for dinner on Friday because the Maple Leafs were in Columbus. But before Saturday night’s game, Trevor popped into James’ residence adjacent to the Blackhawks’ hotel for a little private time before nap time.

Flanking Frans at the game was Brendan, the youngest van Riemsdyk, 18 and growing like a weed.

“Tonight will whet his appetite,” said Dad. “Did you notice his hat? Blackhawks.”

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